Thought for the day: The Cinderella effect

Unglamorous projects add true value, says Colin Beveridge

Colin Beveridge  

Let's hear it for the Cinderellas working on the dull projects that no one else will touch. They are the ones who add persistent value to the organisation, says Colin Beveridge.

 

 

 

We’ve all got one, haven’t we? A project that nobody wants to know about, let alone be part of.

Starved of resources and goodwill, the staff on such Cinderella projects languish alone, apparently unloved by the rest of the organisation, while they wait desperately for a friendly Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming to rescue them from their life of drudgery amid the grime of the corporate data-kitchens.

It’s fair to say, though, that the Cinderella project is often a self-fulfilling prophecy because it’s not the natural domain of the high-profile high fliers, who have an uncanny knack of avoiding obscurity and potential career oblivion at all costs.

Ambitious people rarely wish to be associated with the mundane and clearly prefer to be involved with ground-breaking initiatives; unless, of course, the ground-breaking is simply a matter of digging the road up to get at the sewers, in which case you won’t see their heels for dust as they scramble unattractively to adorn themselves with the latest glitzy gewgaws of the more glamorous projects. A life of rags and ashes is definitely not their destiny of choice.

So we tend to find ourselves working with two quite distinct IT lifestyles, even within the same organisation, as the change agenda and workforce inevitably separate into the “sexy” and the “Cinderella” projects. Such is life.

And yet, in my experience, we eventually discover that it isn’t the high-profile, more exciting, projects that actually deliver persistent value to the organisation.

Indeed, so many of these high-flying initiatives have a frightening tendency to crash and burn, long before any chance of benefits. We really should call these disappointing failures the Ugly Sisters, because they fail to deliver on their own perceived beauty and superficial attractiveness.

Yet it is the poor little Cinderella projects that are really more likely to add persistent value to their organisations by quietly and steadily carrying out the day-to-day chores with which the high fliers didn’t want to soil their hands.

Wherever I have worked, I have always found that some of the most valuable people in the team are those unsung heroes who just get on steadily with the routine, possibly boring, tasks.

Too often, though, these paragons may not be well perceived by their peers and managers, which is a tremendous mistake in my view because they not only have a good track record of delivery but also achieve their success in the face of adversity and indifference.

These are the people who can usually save our bacon when things really get tough because they are much more likely to be both resourceful and pragmatic.

That’s why I honestly believe that the experience of working on the Cinderella projects is an essential grounding for all IT staff and should be part of the induction process for all new starters.

There are so many benefits from this approach, both to the individuals and to the organisation, that I find it hard to understand why we even think about letting people loose on the high-risk, high-profile projects until we have had a good opportunity of seeing how they handle being constrained by the lack of resources and kudos in Cinderella’s world.

But how do you spot the Cinderella projects in your own organisation? Dead easy; just watch out for a purchase order that needs a signature for a pumpkin and six white mice. I’m sure someone in Finance will have given it a cost centre code.

Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at colin@colin.beveridge.name

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